Part 2—Orphan falls hard for Astaire: In the decade of the 1950s, the history of sex in the Hollywood cinema is largely a story of age in the cinema.
More specifically, it's a story of much younger female stars falling in love, on camera at least, with a series of much older men. It wasn't just Susan Slept Here, the unwatchable 1954 comedy which ends with the 17-year-old Susan (played by Debbie Reynolds) dragging her geriatric husband, Dick Powell (actual age, 50) into a nearby bedroom to consummate their marriage.
One year later, it was Daddy Long Legs! But first, a quick speculation.
In Hollywood film, the 1950s were the era of "codger chic." Presumably, part of the reason went something like this:
As Hollywood emerged into the postwar years, it retained a large set of well-known, bankable, somewhat older male stars. Presumably, these male stars wanted to continue serving as leading men. Presumably, Hollywood wanted to exploit their bankability.
For whatever reason, those older male stars continued to serve as leading men all through the 1950s. But for whatever reason, they were persistently paired with a new generation of much younger, smokin' hot, emerging female stars.
We're speaking of such men as these: Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Bogart, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. Even John Wayne and Bing Crosby, not to exclude Sinatra.
We're speaking of such emerging female stars as these: Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, even Sophia Loren, with Debbie Reynolds repeatedly cast as the underage sprite hooking up with the older fellow.
Again and again, these younger, emerging female stars were forced to smooch and cavort, and fall in love, with a much older group of male stars. Compliant audiences spent the decade pretending that these "odd couple" pairings made visual and conceptual sense.
This is part of the history of sex—and sexual abuse—in Hollywood, a story which is suddenly being told today. It's also the story of dating patterns in Alabama, and elsewhere, during the next several decades, a story about which we liberals wailed and shrieked for the past several months as a fellow named Donald J. Trump was arranging to loot the treasury.
For now, let's put those contemporary considerations aside. Today, let's skip from 1954, when the Powell character was dragged to the bedroom by the 17-year-old he'd "impulsively" married, to 1955, when Caron was forced to fall in love with an aging Fred Astaire.
Due to their very youthful appearance, Caron and Hepburn were forced to spend this entire decade falling for much older men. In the ultimate indignity, Caron—playing 18—ended up marrying Maurice Chevalier—actual age, 73—in the Oscar nominated 1961 film, Fanny.
That indignity lay in the future. By 1955, Caron was an established semi-star. But as with Hepburn, her looks suited her to playing the gamine.
This led to her casting in the unwatchable Daddy Long Legs, an attempt at a major film which didn't take off. The leading authority on the unwatchable film describes its plot as shown below.
Good lord! Here we go again!
Wealthy American Jervis Pendleton III (Fred Astaire) has a chance encounter at a French orphanage with a cheerful 18-year-old resident, Julie Andre (Leslie Caron). He anonymously pays for her education at a New England college. She writes letters to her mysterious benefactor regularly, but he never writes back. Her nickname for him, "Daddy Long Legs", is taken from the description of him given to Andre by some of her fellow orphans who see his shadow as he leaves their building."Despite their large age difference, they fall in love?" Under the rules of Hollywood film in the 1950s, nothing else could have happened! Inevitably, the cheerful 18-year-old orphan ended up with the "old coot!"
Several years later, he visits her at school, still concealing his identity. Despite their large age difference, they fall in love.
Granted, Caron's character is no longer 18 when she falls for Astaire. She may be as old at 20.
That said, in real life, Astaire was now 56 years old. Beyond that, it's fair to say that he was no one's idea of a dreamboat.
By all accounts, Astaire was one of the greatest dancers (and athletes) in Hollywood history, and in vaudeville before that. But aside from his world-class dancing ability, it's hard to imagine that he ever would have been cast as a leading man.
He didn't look like a leading man, Nor did he look like a dreamboat—and by now, he was 56.
By way of contrast, Caron was 24 in real life, playing 18 at the start of the film. By the rules of the game, she fell for the wraith-like Astaire. She fell for Fred, and fell hard.
In reality, Astaire was just one in a long line of older male stars with whom Caron was paired during this malecentric era. That leading authority on the film reports a comical sidelight:
The film was one of Astaire's personal favorites, largely due to the script, which, for once, directly addresses the complications inherent in a love affair between a young woman and a man thirty years her senior.A man thirty years her senior? Even for men, math is hard!
At any rate, one prays that Astaire wasn't so blind as to believe what's described in that passage. In fact, this unwatchable film "directly addresses" nothing at all, and its persistent attempts at humor are unbearable.
That said, the term "for once" is revealing. Hollywood had drenched the culture with codger chic. Finally, Astaire may have thought, this issue was being addressed!
Caron was forced to endure this treatment throughout the decade, in which she created a major career. She starred in two Best Picture Oscar winners (An American in Paris, 1951; Gigi, 1957), and in a third Best Picture nominee (Fanny, 1961). She received a nomination as Best Actress in yet another film (Lili, 1954).
Still and all, Caron rarely escaped her pairing with the old or older goats. In An American in Paris, she was forced to fall in love with Gene Kelly. His actual age was 39. She was 20, and things spiraled downward from there.
In Gigi, Caron's character is so young as the picture begins that she's literally playing tag with her schoolgirl friends when she first appears on the screen. As this happens, Maurice Chevalier is ogling a bunch of 6-year-olds, singing about how hot they'll be when they get a bit older.
(Chevalier, actual age 70: "Each time I see a little girl of five or six or seven. I can't resist a joyous urge to smile and say, Thank heaven...")
As the film proceeds, the Caron character, who is perhaps 16, becomes romantically paired with Louis Jourdain (actual age, 37), who is bored to tears with his upper-class life as a foppish womanizer.
His boredom can only be relieved by the exuberance of the teen-aged Gigi. The leading authority on the film offers this summary of the Jourdain character's thinking as the film nears its climax:
As he walks, he starts to reflect about Gigi. He stops and suddenly realizes that she has become a woman whose charms, wit, and personality have sent his head spinning. He soon comes to the conclusion that he has developed a romantic desire for Gigi.Gigi refuses to play it like that. They end up getting married.
Although he has doubts due to their enormous age difference, he also realizes that he loves her even more than he thought (unheard of between a man and a mistress) and he wants to be with her. He proposes an arrangement to Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia for Gigi to become his mistress.
Granted, Gigi is a period piece; it's superb in many ways. But by the logic of 1950s Hollywood, what eventually happens in the film simply had to happen:
Susan gets Powell to consummate when she's still 17. How old is Gigi supposed to be when she marries Gaston?
In fairness, Caron caught a break in Gigi. She wasn't required to marry Chevalier; that would come three years later, in Fanny. But Caron was hit on, harassed or married by much older men all through the 1950s. This was the logic of the era. As such, i's a significant part of the sexual history of American popular culture.
Caron's career is one small part of this era's devotion to "codger chic." Presumably, this wave of films reflected Hollywood's desire to continue to keep using bankable established male stars as leading men.
Presumably, sexual politics dictated that these older, bankable men had to be paired with younger female stars. They couldn't age gracefully with the established female stars of the previous decade.
Presumably, the peculiar scenarios of this era also reflected the vanity and the fantasies of those aging male stars, and of a generation of male producers, directors and writers. Behind the foolishness of these on-screen pairings lies the fractured sexual politics which is only now being revealed and explored in its later manifestations.
In Alabama and elsewhere, cultural notions about dating, romance and marriage flowed in part from this peculiar Hollywood era. Decades later, we liberals would stage a moral panic about this fact, a moral panic which helped Donald J. Trump loot the treasury this week.
Go ahead! You can watch the ending of Daddy Long Legs, where Caron is forced to smooch with the aging Astaire as his old coot employees look on. (To watch the trailer, click here.)
Part of the history of sex in the cinema involves the way a major female star like Caron was denied the chance to portray love and romance on the screen with male stars of roughly her own age. That said, she was hardly alone.
Three years later, in 1958, Kim Novak was forced to fall in love with twice-her-age Jimmy Stewart in two different major films (Bell Book and Candle; Vertigo). Hepburn, constantly cast, like Caron, as some version of the gamine, was paired with every geriatric in town, not excluding Cooper, Astaire and Bogart.
(Later, in 1961, even with Buddy Ebsen!)
This was sexual politics at its weirdest, its most malecentric and juvenile. As our series continues, we'll suggest a few places where Hollywood has offered more instructive romantic role models for sensible humans to steer by.
That said, how much same-age love has Hollywood ever shown you? In the 1950s, the examples were comically, but also destructively, few and far between.
Coming: Hitchcock is part of this tale; also, some excellent models